A Colstrip Republican who slipped an amendment into an unrelated bill to revive a potential NorthWestern Energy bailout also inserted language into a Department of Justice appropriations bill, requiring the state attorney general to investigate “environmental organizations” in the state.
Under the measure by Sen. Duane Ankey, the attorney general would receive $250,000 to spend on any investigation, which includes accessing the groups’ memberships, funding, spending and political speech or lobbying retroactive to 2011.
This applies to all environmental nonprofit groups in Montana, from a local Audubon chapter objecting to moving a wetland to larger groups like the Montana Environmental Information Center, which has opposed several NorthWestern Energy actions.
It goes hand-in-hand with SB 278, which requires any nonprofit organization that challenges a government action in court to provide its financial information and names of all its members paying more than $50 because it’s “not a charitable purpose.”
While the bill could affect environmental groups, it could also apply to groups such as Stand Up Montana, the group suing Missoula County for adopting regulations to keep citizens safe during the COVID pandemic.
Groups are saying this violates the right to associate as protected in the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and worry that their members would be harassed.
They compare the bills to SLAPP suits. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation and such lawsuits are often filed by corporations to silence activists. They often have little legal grounds but the financial cost of defending against accusations of libel or slander is often more than regular people can withstand.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.